Is Coronavirus Killing Crime?

An NYPD officer takes a selfie in an almost empty Times Square in New York City, March 31, 2020. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
Probably not, according to the available data.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W ith big-city streets emptied out, many people are assuming that the coronavirus has had at least one positive consequence: low crime. But what little data there are reveal that some crimes, including key indicators, have actually increased. Another oddity is that while the amount of crime varies from city to city, it does not necessarily correlate with a municipality’s rate of infection.

Anecdotal reports suggest that domestic-violence cases are up because families are required to remain in their homes, where frustrations and abuse are mounting. This may be true, but so far there is little hard evidence to support the claim. It is also said that police are making fewer arrests in order to avoid contact with suspects. If so, this could increase crime by removing the disincentive created by arrests.

On the positive side, uninhabited streets and riderless mass transit are probably reducing “broken windows”-type offenses, such as fare beating, loitering, or defacing public property. But any decline in “quality of life” crime won’t provide much benefit as long as public spaces remain off limits.

To get a better handle on the situation with major crimes, I examined statistics from nine cities, chosen because they provide data on crimes reported to police from January to April 2020, as well as comparable figures for the same period in 2019. Here’s what I found.

Keep in mind that a lot of crime never gets reported to the police — as many as 3.3 million cases per year — so these statistics undercount crime and may even be unrepresentative. For violent crime, the most reliable figure is for homicide, mainly because dead bodies eventually come to the attention of the authorities. One shortcoming of this metric is that murders don’t happen that often — a good thing for society, not so good for crime analysis.

Six of the nine cities had higher homicides in year-to-date 2020 than in the same period in 2019. Nashville went from 14 murders last year to 27 this year, a 93 percent jump. San Francisco saw a 50 percent spike, from 8 cases to 12. Two cities, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., were unchanged, with 90 and 44 homicides, respectively. New York, with one of the highest virus rates in the nation, was the only city of the nine with fewer homicides this year.

Based on the preceding, I would say that violent crime probably increased during the worst of the coronavirus, and obviously there is little to support the conclusion that it diminished.

What about property crime? Here the best statistic is automobile theft, mainly because the victims cannot recover from insurers without filling out a police report. The results are a bit more equivocal than with violence. Five cities had more auto thefts in 2020, whereas four had fewer. Seeking corroboration, I found that only two of the five cities with a spike in auto theft also had more burglary. Of the four cities with a decline in car theft, three also had fewer reported burglaries. So I draw no inference regarding property crime, though certainly one cannot say that the virus knocked it down.

The clear conclusion is that the coronavirus has not significantly driven down major crime. This judgment is bolstered by data from the massive influenza pandemic of 1918. The so-called Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans over roughly ten months, 20 times as many as the coronavirus (so far). Yet when I examined homicides in 1918 in the five most stricken states — Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Colorado — I found increases over 1916 in every state. (I chose 1916 because there was no crime-diminishing conscription for World War I until 1917.) Another anomaly is that death rates from the 1918 pandemic were highest among the 18-to-40 age cohort, especially young males, perhaps because the flu first spread within the armed forces. The impact on this population, which is at particular risk for violence, should have reduced crime, but it didn’t.

So those expecting a major-crime dividend from the present-day pandemic had better think again. And any return to normalcy in the heat of the summer will likely bring on the usual seasonal crime spike, maybe higher than usual once virus-related constraints are relaxed.

Barry Latzer is an emeritus professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. His most recent book is The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America. His history of violent crime pre-1940, The Roots of Violent Crime in America: From the Gilded Age through the Great Depression, will be published in 2021.

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